The instinct to mark the passing of a human life is a strong and righteous one. That’s especially true when someone dies young and is part of a close-knit community, such as a university. And in this day and age, we’re all used to a high level of communication about salient events in our lives.
So, the points made by WSN in its editorial are understandable. But they are nevertheless wrong on several fronts.
First, the university makes decisions about communicating about a student death carefully and on a case-by-case basis using only one standard: what is in the best overall interests of student safety and well-being. If we think putting out a communication would benefit student welfare, that’s what we do. If we think it will be detrimental to student well-being, we don’t. The deciding factor is not and should not be whether a news organization has chosen to report on the death.
Suicide, though a leading cause of death among young people, presents a distinctive set of circumstances. Research clearly shows that suicides, especially among the young in a closed community like a school, are prone to a contagion effect, which is exacerbated by rapidly spread information about the deaths and by honoring the individuals publicly. Like every university, NYU at any given time has students in its midst who are coping with suicidal impulses; therefore, the public handling of information about suicides requires restraint and careful consideration.
Second, it is a perilous endeavor to speculate about the motives for self-harm. The defining characteristic of suicide is typically deep, unrelenting hopelessness that goes untreated. It is little more than a guessing game to try to ascribe a suicide’s reason to one thing or another. That is why we were so disappointed to see WSN use data from the [email protected] assessment to seemingly impute the student’s death to a lack of community at NYU. The fact is, NYU’s outcomes on the [email protected] assessment are very much in line with those of other national universities.
Third, WSN’s characterization of NYU’s health and mental health services doesn’t tell the real story. We routinely conduct patient satisfaction surveys with students, and the overwhelming majority feel their clinician was knowledgeable, that they felt respected, that their appointment was scheduled promptly and that the services helped them stay in school. Moreover, our services are widely used: some 45,000 visits, some 25,000 calls to our hotline and over 500 uses of our recently launched chat service.
We appreciate that not everyone is satisfied with his or her counseling experience, and we would not suggest that anyone’s personal experience is anything other than what he or she have claimed. However, what does concern us are comments that may have the effect of discouraging students from seeking the help of the university’s highly-trained, professional counselors when they need it. Such discouragement could have tangible, negative results.
We believe WSN has tried to act responsibly in its reporting on last week’s student death; its initial story showed restraint and thoughtfulness. However, its continued reporting, and particularly its focus on matters that we know can be harmful — sending out mass communications, staging commemorations, raising doubts about counseling — has been less admirable.
We have a number of hopes. We hope that in the fullness of time WSN will come to understand that what they are calling for is certain to do far more serious harm than good. We hope that any future coverage of student deaths exhibits the same restraint and care for the well-being of struggling fellow students that they showed in their initial story. And we hope that while some will no doubt continue to disagree with our position that they will at least come to understand that our decision is guided by the research in the field, our experience and an unwavering focus on doing what is the best interests of students.
John Beckman is NYU’s chief spokesperson.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]